Indymedia is a wide-ranging phenomenon: its genesis in opposition to dominant powers; its constituency spanning numerous public interest movements; and its continuing success creating a proving ground for a next generation of leaders who today, 20 years later, are scattered globally, yet ascending into positions of power and influence.
The Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center (UCIMC) is, and always has been, a relative outlier in the Indymedia landscape. But it rose quickly to become a dominant nexus for local social and economic justice organizing, and, as it happened, the legal headquarters for Global Indymedia. This local IMC incubated scores of projects that, for the half-decade before ubiquitous smartphones, were important in bringing documentation resources in some way to the front lines of nearly every major global justice and pro-democracy protest on the planet.
Both Global Indymedia and the Urbana-Champaign IMC were built upon a foundation of trust, solidarity, generosity, and collaboration—tenets that thrived in opposition to a dominant, cynical culture that was equally dismissive of environmental degradation, racial and economic justice, labor, and youth.
In the late 1990s, I found myself in Urbana for graduate school. I had just returned from a year-long backpacking trip, traveling through Eastern Europe and the Kurdistan region of southeastern Turkey. My own role in the global movement and local organization was facilitated greatly, if unintentionally, by my then-department: being marginalized and eventual censured by it, I found myself underemployed and alienated at a critical juncture in the development of Indymedia. Instead, I found inspiration among many of Chambana’s community leaders—a cadre of individuals whose passion, charisma, and courage exerted an inescapable gravitational pull.
Upon arrival, I had helped create the School Climate Research Team to investigate the problematic racial climate of Champaign’s public schools. And soon, through my volunteer work with the Common Ground Food Cooperative (CGFC) and the School for Designing a Society (SDaS), I’d become integrated into the “Urbana Underground”—a thriving, energetic, heterogenous, scrappy fellowship of local residents working on the front lines of numerous societal battles. I’d been recruited to the CGFC board to develop an emergency intervention (which was successful) to prevent its immediately pending bankruptcy, and then helped develop the original plan to move CGFC into a building in downtown Urbana (which was either wildly unsuccessful, or prescient, depending on one’s timescale). I fell in with the “gardening faction” of SDaS, eventually helping coordinate the permaculture project to repurpose the abandoned lot behind my apartment to create the “Oregon Street Garden.”
Even these seemingly innocuous successes carried a relatively heavy psychological toll. I can remember the numerous frustrations in conducting these “good works”: angry recriminations during uncomfortable sit-downs with Illinois Disciples Foundation leaders (a few had felt that our work to bolster the CGFC was somehow to their own detriment); learning that my landlord had desecrated the community garden with herbicide . . again—the Nanking cherry trees being an affront, I suppose, to the trash-infested expanse of ill-maintained lawn that had existed prior to our ministrations. And, of course, there were the active threats stemming from our racial climate research: the brick through my front window; the tirades in public meetings and anonymous statements in the press; the notes left on our surveys wishing us egregious bodily harm or engaging in fantasies of murder, scribbled by elementary school children, that parroted notions likely heard from older students, or at home—threats dismissed as unimportant by the police, even in a post-Columbine era.
I was a union steward during the drive to unionize and empower graduate students—a posting which several faculty in my then-department openly mocked; and I joined the Champaign County Living Wage Association and the Socialist Forum, fighting for economic justice at a time before these were acceptable norms. And in each of these organizations, the sense of solidarity and agency was apparent. Throughout Champaign-Urbana, organizations and initiatives standing in opposition to a wrongful status quo were thriving, yet relatively disparate. The distance between these organizations was all the odder, given that so many of them had substantially overlapping membership. What was missing was a common cause large enough to encompass and support the work of all these entities and projects.
It was serendipitous, then, in the lead-up to the November, 1999 “Battle in Seattle,” that many of these same organizations coordinated to send a local contingency to the protests against the World Trade Organization conference; and that my then-department, when I petitioned for a few days off to join this vanguard, denied my request. Thus, while my friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators headed west, I found myself helping organize “home support” and “logistics.” It was, in my mind, an utterly secondary posting—but one that also became the genesis for the main role I was to play in local and Global Indymedia for the next seven years.
It’s important to remember that in 1999, there were no Signal groups; Facebook wouldn’t exist for another half-decade, nor Twitter for two years after that. Within this context, the question of how to organize, document, and disseminate on-the-ground reality (as opposed to the official, overwhelmingly misleading-to-false narratives in official news sources) was foremost in the minds of (pre-)Seattle participants. Indymedia was yet to be born, but the need for an intervention like Indymedia was already well understood by those participating in front-line activism.
It probably happened elsewhere—the larger instigators were already in place. The first generations of digital media devices were hitting the consumer market (e.g., cameras with 3.5-inch disk drives, and affordable minidisc and portable digital video recorders); the Internet was becoming known outside of the academy; the first smartphones would soon be connected to 3G networks; and a global network of itinerant geeks were meeting up and swapping notes about how to build more inclusive community forums for posting and commenting on news and information—in essence, transforming individual and group weblogs into a multi-media participatory digital forum. But for many, Seattle was the first place where the prototype that was this first Indymedia.org website was experienced; for many outside Seattle, Indymedia became the “go-to resource” to find out what was actually happening on the streets, live and without censorship.
And this idea—individuals, on-the-ground, documenting their experiences directly and posting these realities for the world to see—spread like wildfire. At the Seattle mobilization, hundreds of demonstrators, including those from Urbana-Champaign, heard about and participated in this first Indymedia Center; and post-Seattle, they brought the idea back to local communities around the globe.
“Logistics” and Building IndyMedia
For my part, being forbidden from traveling, I became “a logistics guy.” Thus, it was probably inevitable that at the first community meeting to think about establishing a local IMC, I volunteered (temporarily, as I recollect) to handle logistics for setting up a bank account with the $61 in pass-the-hat funding we’d just raised. And yes, I may have over-exuberantly also suggested that we aim to purchase a building; but what is certain is that this “temporary” posting quickly became a relatively all-encompassing calling. For the next half decade, nearly every moment of my waking hours was spent on “logistics”—as my notes from the time said, “I’ll be doing treasurer stuff & am working to get incorporation & EIN [Employer Identification Number] & non-profit stuff done” (it’s quite clear that at the time I had no idea what “non-profit stuff” would soon entail).
By September of 2000, a fairly well-developed plan existed for the framework of the UCIMC, including memberships and sustaining donors. Originally, we’d developed an idea for a radio station (“RFU”), newsstand, newspaper [“Octopus alternative”], lending library, coffee shop, and “Indycenter.” We’d proposed that this would add “energy/bustle” to downtown Urbana, but were still homeless. We spent a lot of time looking at spaces; I spent a lot more time meeting individually with local community members and asking them to provide sustaining funding to get this nascent idea off the ground. Shockingly, an incredibly high percentage of those individuals provided support; even more shockingly, many of them provided donations that amounted to a substantial portion of their disposable income. Such was the level of commitment, whether in time or money, from so many within our local community.
In mid-October, 2000, we finally coalesced around an official name, the “Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center,” and settled on the initial business plan: coffee house, newsstand, IMC, and art gallery (with attendant editing room, media room, gallery, radio booth, library/archive, and food prep room). We held our first major public fundraiser “FREE POLITICS/FREE PRESS,” soon after, and revamped and began constructing our space on West Main Street.
Being systematically underemployed by my then-department, I had time on my hands; thus it was natural that I had a hand in helping support many of the early IMC projects (especially before they were handed off to far more capable and knowledgeable individuals). Our Zine library began on the shelf of my Race Street apartment; thankfully, Kate McDowell and Ellen Knutson stepped in to curate. I remember constructing the media room of our original IMC space with Mike Lehman; and creating the Shows group (and space) with Zach Miller, Paul Kotheimer, and Jenny Stewart. Meeting in cafes and around my dining room table, we created the idea that became the Public i; after Issue No. 1, I was so thankful when Belden Fields took on the role (temporarily, I’m sure) of coordinating the IMC’s newspaper. (I think this may, in fact, be my first Public i article since introducing that inaugural issue). But mostly, very simply, I ensured that the bills got paid, the day-to-day fundraising happened, the business plan got written and diversified, the grants had budget spreadsheets, and all the attendant documentation and paperwork got filed. These tasks had me in our physical space enough that I became a fixture (or perhaps a ghost), whether late into the nights or throughout many of my weekends: during punk shows, community meetings, and everything in between. At some points, I worked for pay; much of the time I worked for free, often conveniently “forgetting” to pay myself our agreed-upon wages—which helped make our early books balance.
The UCIMC was unique within the Indymedia network: as a non-profit, we ended up becoming the fiscal sponsor for Global Indymedia and many other IMCs, not because of some grand takeover plan (as some conspiracy theorists thought), but because Global Indymedia needed a fiscal sponsor to accept certain grants and donations. Since I was already helping coordinate the Global Indymedia finance team (an outgrowth of earlier “logistics” work), it made sense at the time to consolidate efforts (at least “temporarily”). As a fiscal sponsor that supported allied projects, the UCIMC helped support a huge array of interventions, accepting funding on their behalf, and figuring out logistics for getting support and hardware into many of the world’s hot spots, whether directly or via projects we sponsored (e.g., the Global South Fund and the Tactical Media Fund). And I was, for better and worse, in the middle of nearly every Indymedia kerfuffle, whether over the supporting of both Israel and Palestine IMCs (when I was told by both sides that I was a terrorist), the infamous Ford Foundation grant (which I helped write, and then also helped reject), and countless other missteps (such as stating, without adequate context, that the Urbana-Champaign IMC was the “legal headquarters” for Global Indymedia). “Logistics,” as it turns out, can be fraught.
In December, 2000, we hosted a seminal design “charette” (planning workshop) within our new space: a time when we discussed both many of the hallmarks of the IMC-to-come and many of the core tensions inherent in this type of organization and community center: “ugly stuff storage” and “aesthetics,” “‘disabilities’ access,” “security.” Sarah Kanouse and Danielle Chynoweth helped navigate us through many of the stickier wickets; Paul Riismandel, Bob Cook, Peter Miller, Molly Stentz, and many others who’ve since become “Urbana diaspora” were integral in proofing out the initial spaces, maintaining the strength of our original ethos, and supporting (with their time and funding) the creation of a radical media and community-empowering intervention.
We didn’t over-romanticize what we were doing; we were very aware of our early successes, as well as our shortcomings. As I summed up in my December 17, 2000 notes: “had huge ‘space’ debate . . is the system we set up to reach decisions maintaining a homogeneous group [of] mostly white, radical-progressive[s]? And is this a necessary evil?”
We also understood, even during its genesis, that the fundamentally important, immutable core tenet of the UCIMC would be “change.” The structure was built to be extensible, the leadership and initiatives were meant to evolve over time, the organization was predicated upon active inclusiveness and participatory democracy. When we failed (occurrences too numerous to count), we reflected, learned, and adapted—and we understood that risk tolerance was essential to our continuing success.
Looking Back, and Outward
Reflecting on the twenty-year history of the Urbana-Champaign IMC, perhaps the most remarkable element is how thoughtful and far-reaching the vision has remained. At its core, my own role was simply “logistics”; if I wanted to aggrandize what that meant, I’d suggest that I did the financial planning to enable the organization with an opportunity to thrive. Scanning through my old steno pads full of notes, I can see that it wasn’t until February 4, 2001 that we officially adopted the IMC’s structure. And I can see, in my own notes, my own modest intervention: “10% to endowment – APPROVED”—that “endowment” bought our building. But I’d also noted that there were twenty-two people at that February 4 meet-up, all of whom had an important role in the establishment and continuing success of this much-loved institution, and all of whom have an equally important tale to tell of how their individual travails helped create the Urbana-Champaign IMC.
Early local UCIMC organizers like Molly Stentz, Pauline Bartolone, and Brett McDonald have all gone on to incredibly successful professional journalism careers; incredibly talented individuals from farther afield, like Ana Nogueira and Chris Hayes, cut their teeth within the Indymedia network prior to going on to become core assets of Democracy Now! and MSNBC. And within myriad other sectors, so many of today’s progressive leaders have ties either directly to Indymedia or were “Indymedia-adjacent” in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Sascha Meinrath is the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State University and director of X-Lab, an innovative think tank focusing on the intersection of vanguard technologies and public policy. After spending his formative years in Indymedia and other movements in Urbana-Champaign, he has spent the past two decades as a community internet pioneer, social entrepreneur, and angel investor.